The first thing he did as he closed the door behind him, stepped forward and dragged the snow-powdered coat off his shoulders and onto the floor, was grope for the switch. It was dark, and there was his heart to consider. Light could fix it, light could settle his breathing. Also, light could let him examine the room: slowly, carefully, searching for any traces she might have left. A hair, a favourite book, a picture from Vienna… There were so many traces he could think of.
The books. Oh yes, like his own disheveled hair and thoughts – they were everywhere. 18th century novels, hard-cover anthologies, cookbooks, children’s books, scientific monographs, expendable travel guides… But he knew this was all wrong. Like a good sleuth he never was, he knew this was not it. For it was Italian poetry she loved. Those amorous stanzas overflowing with passion, she would recite them whenever she was depressed or suffered from a bout of insomnia. Italian poetry, of all things. He could never understand this obsession of hers (for it really was an obsession), but then he could never read Italian.
Whenever she travelled to Rome, on business or for pleasure, she would always bring back a new collection of poems, a new anthology of verse. All in Italian and always something anacreontic (her word). And then of course it became a lot easier. Through the Internet she could order any number of books she wanted. It didn’t even take weeks – it took days. Or that’s what he heard anyway.
However, as his eyes kept running over mushy paperbacks and glossy dictionaries, he was growing more and more frustrated. For in the whole of this place there was not a single book in Italian, to say nothing of Italian poetry... The numerous shelves of this vast living-room did not contain a single trace of her. Maybe other people. Maybe her ghost. Maybe really her – but seen through the eyes of strangers, aliens, enemies, distant acquaintances…
Her clothes. He knew there was no time to go upstairs and examine her room thoroughly and with due attention to the detail. This living-room really was his lot, and he had to make the best of it. He inspected the low, rather excessively pillowed sofa and three enormous red armchairs, but all he could find amid the teddy-bears and a crude, formless pair of men’s gloves was a pretty ordinary hat of deep red. There was no style about this hat, no personality, no taste. He winced. Who could have been so blind and pathetic as to give her this sorry thing? She, who could spend long hours studying fashion magazines and making relevant pencil marks, she would never put on anything like that!.. This was not her, this was a bad joke, and no wonder it was stuffed so deep into the corner of the sofa.
He smelled the room. Her scent. Her perfume. But soon he realised how pointless that was and gave it up. This was like trying to distinguish the smell of strawberries in the midst of the roars of market vendors – selling fish, melons, dogs, flowers, tomatoes, pastry… He could not scent her, and neither could he scent those two small Siamese cats she used to have. Instead, there was the thick, gruesome smell of some old and gruesome Labrador, there was a distinct smell of rough tobacco (yes, she did smoke, but surely not something this cheap, sickening and repulsive) and even (though he was not too sure about this one) alcohol, there were millions of other smells – but there was nothing in the air that could help him trace her.
Next he carefully observed the mantelpiece and that ugly, overcluttered array of pictures it contained. Tamed memories: so many families did that. Well, he did recognize her face on most of the pictures, but all the blurry and burry figures dangling annoyingly next to her or in the background – those he couldn’t recognize. And it had a bizarre effect on his perception of her face. Oddly, it no longer looked like she really was there – rather, it looked like she was cut out of a magazine or maybe another picture and then pasted here, on this beach or under this tree. Vienna? There was no Vienna anywhere in sight.
His eyes ran through the walls around him in search of a clock. Yes, there was one, but it did not tell him the time. It told him that soon it would be time to leave. Or perhaps not leave – but flee, escape, or maybe something even worse than that.
And speaking of walls. There were pictures. Many pictures, but not something you could get your teeth into. Random patches of paint, this was like looking at street slush suddenly made colourful by a child’s hand. And this, he thought, was coming from someone who couldn’t stomach abstract art. She really couldn’t, and when somebody had the audacity to offer her a visit to a gallery exposition of modern paintings, she would laugh it off. Or maybe she would give it a go, and then be found dozing off on one of those rigid banquettes placed at the centre of museum halls. So these splashes of someone’s laziness and self-confidence didn’t make any sense. He looked away, as if embarrassed.
Music? Films? Well, there were CDs and DVDs and even some old-fashioned video tapes he could look through, but she was never into those things. No traces to even look for. As everyone else was going to the movies or camping at rock festivals, she was more likely to be found wandering through the streets, dreaming and having long, abstract conversations with her friends.
However, she could play music. Her father (who was the kind of father who had these ridiculously overblown thoughts about the future of his children) even forced her to take piano lessons. The first piano, that huge black casket. At first it intimidated her so much that she was reluctant to enter the room for the purpose of watering flowers or watching TV… Her music teacher, that long-nosed, crumpled, uptight man who demanded too much and who probably believed that in terms of cultivating a true classical celebrity she was his very last shot. Her playing was good, but she was never particularly diligent. Having learnt the basics, she struggled to understand why she should study the faded music sheets encoding works of Mozart and Liszt, and kept trying to come up with her own stuff. Some thought it clumsy and amateurish, but of course it was all down to envy. She was young and talented…
He didn’t notice it at first, but now, full of hope and suppressed anticipation, he approached it. It wasn’t easy: in order to sit on the stool and open the lid, you had to throw away books, pens, empty vases and even a small children’s globe. When he finally managed all that, he placed his dirty, horny fingers on the white keys…
There was a heavy sound of the front door opening so wide as if to let the whole world in. But it wasn’t the whole world. Just four of them: a man, a woman and two little girls. And the dog, too. They were all looking at the strange man sitting behind the piano and pressing its keys – deliriously, indiscriminately. The scene was hypnotic. When the stranger finally realised that he was no longer alone, he nervously stood up and started muttering something unintelligible. Something none of them could understand. They saw the black teeth, the baggy clothes, the coat crouching under their feet… She told the girls it’s all right, and they let him go.
It was quick, they all wanted it to be quick.
When the girls were upstairs and sleeping, and the two of them were alone in the living-room, he asked her:
- My God, so weird. And playing the piano, of all things… Do we know him? I seem to vaguely recognize the face…
- Oh yes, – she said. – I think we do. Beggar from around the corner. I’ve seen him many times when walking Kyle.
- Ah, – he said. – That’s it. Spooky. Do you think we should do something about it?
- No. I guess we should just be more careful about closing the front door. He obviously didn’t steal anything. Besides, he will never come back.
- Yeah, I guess you are right. Maybe he fell in love with you or something.
- What utter bullshit, – she seemed angry.
- I’m sorry, – he said. – Just being silly.
As he poured himself another drink, she approached the piano and tried to play some rudimentary melody.
- Will you play something? – he asked.
- Well, – she smiled. – The truth is, I don’t remember anything. Besides, the girls are sleeping. Besides, – she then added, – the piano is so badly out of tune.
In the meantime, the man was limping away through the invisible slushy streets. Everybody would be limping through weather like that. He was confused, and he was still muttering incoherent excuses, but deep down there was a comforting thought, memory to get him through another night: those sounds, those beautiful piano notes, it was as if he finally found the traces he’d been looking for.